With thousands of aerospace workers soon to retire, the industry is facing a huge loss of skills and wisdom as business continues to grow.
WASHINGTON — Roughly a quarter of the nation’s 637,000 aerospace workers could be eligible for retirement this year, raising fears that America could face a serious skills shortage in the factories that churn out commercial and military aircraft.
“It’s a looming issue that’s getting more serious year by year,” said Marion Blakey, chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association. “These are real veterans. It’s a hard work force to replace.”
The association, which represents aircraft manufacturers and suppliers, has designated the potential skills drain as one of its top 10 priorities in this year’s presidential race. One of the major aerospace unions is embracing the issue in a rare alliance between labor and management.
“It’s not a problem that’s coming. It’s here,” said Frank Larkin, spokesman for the 720,000-member International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
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The issue particularly resonates in aircraft-manufacturing centers such as the Puget Sound region, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, St. Louis and Wichita, Kan., which bills itself as the “Air Capital of the World.”
“Obviously, we are concerned that we have a large portion of our work force that in five years, 10 years, will pick up and go,” said Marivel Neeley, the senior manager of equal-opportunity programs at Lockheed Martin’s plant in Fort Worth.
Fort Worth is headquarters for Lockheed Martin, which has nearly 25,000 workers in seven cities, including big plants in Fort Worth; Marietta, Ga.; and Palmdale, Calif.
Of the companywide work force, 27 percent, or more than 6,000 employees, would be eligible to retire this year, Neeley said.
In Wichita, which has five major aircraft plants and hundreds of suppliers and vendors, community leaders are working to offset the potential loss of more than 40 percent of the aeronautics work force during the next five years.
One initiative calls for the creation of a world-class aviation training center to help meet the need for 12,000 more aerospace workers by 2018.
The Seattle-Tacoma area appears to be bucking the trend through a production surge at Boeing plants that’s expanded the work force with new hires, including a growing number of workers between 18 and 29.
But nationally, the work force is graying as baby boomers prepare to retire.
Ten years ago, the industry’s largest age group was 35 to 44. In 2007, nearly 60 percent of the work force was 45 or older. At least 20 percent were between the ages of 55 to 64, and many, if not most, were already eligible for retirement.
The problem is essentially one of supply and demand. Both the commercial and military segments of the industry are enjoying robust growth, with sales expected to increase by $12 billion this year.
The demand for aerospace, electrical, mechanical and computer engineering disciplines is expected to be double what it was 10 years ago.
But analysts and corporate bosses say higher education is turning out far too few engineering and aeronautical graduates to fill future vacancies. Public schools’ poor record in teaching math and science is another worry.
Harry Holzer, a Georgetown University professor who served as the chief economist for the Labor Department, said market forces ultimately may solve the problem. But for the moment, he said, “it won’t be painless, and some real adjustments may have to occur.”
Although production workers in aerospace earn more than those in most other manufacturing industries — an average of $1,153 a week, according to the Department of Labor — Holzer said the industry doesn’t have the recruitment appeal that it did decades ago.
Many younger workers, he said, regard aerospace plants as “old-fashioned industries.”
A mass exodus of older workers also means the loss of a vast reservoir of knowledge, skills and institutional memory dating back to the early years of the Vietnam War.
Atlee Cunningham Jr., an engineer at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth plant, calls it a “gut feel” that can’t be learned in books or training manuals.
Cunningham, 69, has been at the plant for 42 years and predates the computer-driven technological revolution that has accompanied the growth of the aerospace industry over the past four-plus decades.
Mindful of the ominous demographic trends, industry, labor and community leaders are teaming to cultivate the next generation of workers.
At Lockheed Martin, said Neeley, the leadership is aggressively pursuing a strategy to attract workers and retain veterans who can mentor younger colleagues.
The initiatives include internships, aggressive recruitment in colleges and universities and an outreach into public schools to get students interested in math and sciences.
Preserving and bolstering the aerospace work force also is a major objective in the Seattle area. “We’ve postured ourselves to manage this,” said Dianna Peterson, Boeing’s director of strategic work force planning.
Edmonds Community College and the University of Washington offer advanced education in composites and other aircraft materials.
Boeing also is working with labor to reinvigorate apprenticeships and other programs that pass aerospace know-how from one generation to another.